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Policy: Technology

Insurers wary of Obama administration claims about back-end website fixes

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Politics,White House,Barack Obama,Obamacare,Health Care,PennAve,Susan Crabtree,Healthcare.gov,Technology,Health Care Exchanges

This article was first posted at 6:36 p.m. on Tuesday and was edited at 8:52 a.m. on Wednesday.

Insurers say they don't know the full extent of back-end problems with healthcare.gov and are wary of the Obama administration’s claims they are fixing the issues quickly.

President Obama and White House officials are trumpeting new fixes to the Obamacare website, saying they met a self-imposed Nov. 30 deadline to deliver a smooth user experience to the vast majority of Americans trying to enroll in the online insurance exchanges.

But they are providing few details about technical bugs that are separate from troubles consumers are experiencing and are preventing insurance brokers from enrolling people in coverage, according to the insurance industry representatives.

These technical troubles also are creating uncertainty for consumers who believe they have successfully signed up for health care coverage on healthcare.gov but have yet to get an insurance card in the mail.

The White House on Tuesday said administration officials, working with an outside contractor, have set up a special team to ensure that all Obamacare forms filled out online are accurate and accounted for by Jan. 1 and ensure that enrollees begin receiving health insurance at the start of 2014.

Insurers are supposed to receive 834 transmission forms from healthcare.gov. The forms, meant to be read by computers, provide insurers with information on enrollees and what plans they have chosen. Without the information, insurers have no way of knowing who has signed up on the Obamacare exchanges and what coverage they need.

Insurers say the sharing of the 834 Forms has been riddled with errors, and they are receiving incomplete or faulty information on enrollees.

The errors have led to confusion about who has actually signed up and paid for health care insurance, whether they have duplicate enrollments and whether their plans have been canceled either for them or for their family members.

The National Association of Health Underwriters, which represents more than 100,000 licensed health-insurance agents and brokers, is so concerned about the website bugs that it sent a letter to Obama on Tuesday asking him to fix a host of back-end obstacles.

In a detailed, three-page letter, Janet Trautwein, the association's chief executive, said her organization appreciates the recent efforts undertaken to improve the front-end user experience on healthcare.gov but said a host of back-end problems remain.

“We want to make it clear that a number of back-end technical obstacles still exist for health insurance agents and brokers trying to actively support the federal marketplace,” she wrote. “Agents and brokers would like to help increase marketplace enrollment as much as possible over the next few months, but technical barriers prevent them from doing so.”

Administration officials on Tuesday though cited “tremendous progress” in addressing the issue but would not confirm the 33 percent error-rate figure, stressing instead that they are working to ensure that all the forms “past and present” are being delivered to insurers accurately and completely.

Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services spokeswoman Julie Bataille has also declined to detail the error rates for the back-end process to reporters.

When pressed on the topic Monday, she said that a bug causing 80 percent of the the problems with the 834 Forms had been fixed, but could not quantify the entire error rate for transmitting data from the healthcare.gov website to insurers.

Insurers say the administration is keeping them in the dark about the size and scope of the problem.

“We're only finding out when people who have signed up call to make sure they are enrolled and we don't have their information,” said one insurance industry source.

The source said the White House is treating the online experience as one-stop shopping when signing up on healthcare.gov is really just the first step in a series needed for consumers to obtain insurance.

After a person completes the online application process, insurers have to verify their information. Then, the insurer must send a bill to the customer and the consumer must pay for the coverage.

“There are still quite a few errors that can occur in that multi-step process,” the source said. “[The administration is] treating it as if it's like Amazon and a drone will come and deliver your insurance to you once you hit submit.”

Cyber experts also question how quickly and thoroughly the problem with the 834 Forms can be fixed. If the administration has fixed the bug causing 80 percent of the problem, experts caution that 20 percent of the forms are either still not being delivered to insurers or are being delivered inaccurately or in duplicate form.

“Eighty percent success rate is a really bad number,” said David Kennedy, the CEO of TrustedSec, a cyber-security firm. “That is not acceptable in the private sector. It's as if you go on Amazon and you buy a product and you only receive it 80 percent of the time.”

White House correspondent Brian Hughes contributed to this report.

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